Oct. 15, 2020, 6:01 a.m. EDT

Child care centers didn’t spread COVID-19, research shows — but questions remain about schools

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By Elisabeth Buchwald

At the heart of the U.S. economy’s ability to recover from the coronavirus-induced recession is parents’ ability to safely send their children back to school and child care centers. But many schools and child care facilities in the U.S. have been forced to close in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

Now new evidence suggests that child care providers whose workplaces remained open at the onset of the pandemic did not test positive for coronavirus at significantly higher rates than providers whose workplaces were closed.

That’s according to a study of more than 57,000 child care providers nationwide from May and June 2020 authored by Yale University researchers. The study was published in “Pediatrics,” the peer-reviewed journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

As many as 45% of pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections are asymptomatic, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if they have no symptoms, children can “ shed” the virus — meaning that they could potentially infect others — for weeks, according to one study of 91 children in Korea.

The Yale study suggests those in close contact with children aren’t necessarily at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. “While plenty of U.S. child care workers contracted COVID-19 in May and June, it wasn’t driven by whether they were working with children or not,” Walter Gilliam, director of Yale University’s Child Study Center and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. 

Related: 1 in 3 parents won’t vaccinate their children against the flu, even though pediatricians say it’s ‘more important than ever’

But child care centers must take specific steps to keep their staff safe, the Yale researchers noted. “This study tells us that as long as there are strong on-site measures to prevent infection, providing care for young children doesn’t seem to add to the provider’s risk of getting sick,” said Gilliam. “Our study does offer solid evidence that, under certain conditions, it’s possible to open child care programs without putting staff in harm’s way.” 

Those measures include, but are not limited to, mask-wearing, allowing only smaller groups of children at the child care facility, frequent hand washing and disinfecting surfaces.

The findings don’t mean schools are in the clear, however. The authors of the study caution: “These results should not be applied to K-12 schools or universities, where students and contexts vary significantly from child care.”

“Adults who work with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers typically have a small group of children who stay together all day,” said Gilliam. “Middle schools and high schools may have hundreds of people in a building — and typically, moving from class to class. Those factors alone make K-12 schools very different from child care programs.”

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